NICOSIA, Cyprus, April 20 (UPI) -- The Russians appear to be making a determined bid to secure a stake in the energy boom in the eastern Mediterranean despite the danger of conflict.
Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey are vying for control of the vast offshore natural gas fields in a region long-deprived of energy resources. The potential windfall adds a new dimension to the conflicts between Israel and the Arabs and between old rivals Turkey and Greece.
The scramble for the region's newfound energy riches is also pitting Israel, supported by Greece and the Greek Cypriots, against its onetime strategic ally Turkey.
Novatek, Russia's biggest independent natural gas producer, is reported to be considering exploration off the war-divided island of Cyprus, which, with nearby Israel, dominates waters where Lebanon and Turkey also claim access.
Only a few weeks ago, Russian energy giant Gazprom signed a preliminary deal with Israel to buy liquefied natural gas from offshore fields that are to start producing over the next 2-3 years.
Gazprom is also reportedly interested in bidding for one of 12 exploration blocks off Cyprus, 300 miles north of Israel.
France's Total and Exxon Mobil of the United States are also reported to be showing interest in the Cypriot exclusive economic zone when the Nicosia government has its second licensing round in May.
The stakes are high. The U.S. Geological Survey said in 2010 the Levantine Basin that encompasses Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Gaza Strip and Cyprus contains at least 122 tcf of gas and considerable oil.
Israel kicked off the regional scramble for natural gas with the 2009-10 discovery of the Tamar field off its northern coast and then the bigger Leviathan field further out to sea.
Both were found by the U.S. Noble Energy Co. of Houston, and its leading Israeli partner, the Delek Group.
Tamar contains an estimated 8.5 trillion cubic feet of gas and Leviathan up to 20 tcf, plus 4.2 billion barrels of oil.
Noble has also made preliminary strikes of 6.35-10 tcf in Cyprus' Block 12. Dubbed the Aphrodite field, it's the southernmost of the blocks off the Greek Cypriot sector of the island and abuts Leviathan.
"With Tamar set to come online in April 2013, and Leviathan expected to begin production by 2016, what is for now just a dispute over maritime borders could soon turn into a regional conflict over natural gas," cautioned Foreign Policy.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey seized one-third of the island, proclaiming it the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Populated by the Turkish Cypriot minority, the TRNC is recognized only by Ankara. The Greek Cypriot sector is universally recognized.
Turkey opposes Greek Cypriot exploration and will soon begin drilling itself off northern Cyprus. It's even contemplating doing that in disputed waters off Greece, a move that would sharpen tensions considerably.
Ankara has threatened to use military force against exploration efforts off Cyprus. It sent warships to escort its exploration vessels and deployed F-16 fighters in the TRNC.
The poorly armed Greek Cypriots have sought a military alliance with Israel, the region's most powerful state. It's widely believed that under a military cooperation pact Israel will be able to base F-16s on Cyprus.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu signed that deal when he visited Nicosia in February to discuss joint exports to Europe. He danced around the issue of whether Israel would provide security for Cyprus' gas zones, while Israel's navy is making plans to shield the Jewish state's gas fields from attack.
Israel also wants to implement a search-and-rescue agreement, seen as another diplomatic device to allow Israeli aircraft to deploy on Cyprus.
"Because of Turkey's tense relations in the eastern Mediterranean … agreements such as these are quite sensitive and raise questions whether they could be the first step toward a strategic alliance," The Jerusalem Post noted.
Israel's air force is already exercising with the Greeks, as the Jewish state deepens its relationship with Athens to replace the alliance it had with Turkey until Ankara broke it off in 2010.
All this military activity heightens the political tensions swelling around the east Mediterranean.
These are destined to mount as Lebanon crosses swords with Israel, claiming that a large chunk of Leviathan lies its EEZ while planning to launch its own exploration program.